Suggest going out for Sichuan (Szechuan) cuisine, and many people immediately envision platters of hot, spicy food—the kind that has you gulping down copious amounts of water all evening in an attempt to soothe your burning taste buds. People are often surprised to discover that at least one-third of the recipes that make up Szechuan cuisine are not spicy at all. That is not to say that Sichuan's reputation for producing "mouth burners" is undeserved. But, along with fiery classics such as "Hot and Numbing Fish" and "Kung Pao Chicken," Sichuan is the home of "Tea Smoked Duck"—a fascinating dish made by smoking a duck over tea leaves.
Moreover, the chili peppers that have made Sichuan cooking famous are a relatively recent addition. It was Christopher Columbus who brought chili peppers back with him from his travels (on behalf of the Spanish crown) in what he mistakenly took to be the Orient, and which we now know was somewhere in the Bahamas. By the time the intrepid, Genoa-born Italian explorer set foot in the New World, chili peppers were flourishing throughout South America, the Caribbean, and Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America). Most sources state Columbus named the plant himself, christening it pimentito or "pepper" out of a mistaken belief that he had discovered black pepper.
It is unclear precisely how chili peppers were introduced to Sichuan, a landlocked, mountain-ringed region in western China. The most accepted view is that Indian missionaries brought chilies with them during their travels along China's famous Silk Route—a series of pathways originally constructed during the Han dynasty for military and strategic purposes, that subsequently gained more importance as a major trade route. Another theory is that they were brought in by Chinese merchants trading with Portuguese and Spanish sailors at various seaports. In any event, today chili peppers are an indispensable feature of Chinese regional cuisine. Dried peppers are frequently used in Sichuan dishes, while cooks favor fresh peppers in the neighboring province of Hunan.
However, this does not mean that Sichuan cooks had no way of producing heat prior to Columbus' transatlantic voyage. Sichuan pepper is another important ingredient in Sichuan cooking. Also known as pepper flower, Chinese pepper, and fagara, Sichuan pepper is not a pepper at all. Instead, the reddish-brown fruit—one of the ingredients in five spice powder—is a berry that comes from the prickly ash tree. While not as hot as chili pepper, it does have a unique flavor and is famous for its numbing effect on the tongue.
Of course, all of this begs the question: how did the Sichuanese develop their taste for fiery cuisine? One common explanation is that Sichuan's muggy, humid climate encourages people to eat strongly spiced foods. There's more to it than that, however. Szechuan dishes often contain many flavors, such as sweet, sour, bitter, hot, salty, aromatic, and fragrant. Hot foods like red chili stimulate the palate, making it more sensitive to all these flavors. In addition, they cleanse the palate in preparation for the next dish. Still, it's interesting to note that highly seasoned foods are primarily a feature of Szechuan home cooking - peppery hot dishes are never served at formal banquets.
Foods Featured in Sichuan Cooking
Chili peppers, Sichuan pepper, garlic, salt, and dried and pickled ingredients such as Sichuan preserved vegetable. Beef, lamb, and pork, although the Szechuanese eat less pork than neighboring Hunan, which is famous for its ham.
Cooking methods: Sichuan cooks employ a variety of cooking methods, from stir-frying to roasting and simmering. Twice Cooked Pork, where the pork is first boiled and then stir-fried, is a classic regional dish.